Our world has unlimited potential distractions.
Like uninvited guests - email and text message notifications, social media updates, and random thoughts that enter our minds have one purpose - to distract us.
Today, more information is available at our fingertips than ever before in history.
In some ways, this is great. The additional information brings a wealth of opportunity. But it also means there are more potential distractions available than ever before as well. 1977 Nobel Prize Winner Herbert Simon said that “Information consumes attention, hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
The increase of available information means that you have more potential options to focus on, each offering possibilities that lure your mind and make it harder to focus on any one thing.
And if you allow all that information to distract you every time you try to work on something important or take your mind off the present moment, you weaken your mind's ability to control your attention.
As much as technology and innovation give us more potential distractions - they are not entirely to blame.
We actually evolved to be easily distracted.
Our ancestors had to stay alert to distractions so they could survive.
Any potential distraction meant opportunity or danger, whether while hunting prey or being hunted by predators, so when they noticed something out of place, that was a notification that cued their attention system to drop everything (get distracted) and pay attention.
Because being distracted was a matter of survival, it's a powerful instinct we all share. These attention processes are what Psychologist Daniel Goldman refers to as our "bottom-up" mind.
The parts of your mind controlling this type of attention are much older and deeper inside your brain. It's the part of your brain responsible for automatic and routine mental activity. It is very fast, impulsive, involuntary, and driven by your emotions. Your bottom-up mind is influenced by your environment and dictates what your mind pays attention to at the moment.
Goldman says we can also have "emotional" distractors. These are problems in your life or relationships that are bugging you. You may have just fought with someone important to you, or you could have a difficult conversation coming up that you don't want to have. Even waiting for a scary medical diagnosis or an important decision that impacts your life can dominate your attention.
It could also be something simple like you have a lot to get done when you get back to work, and those tasks are just sitting in your head. These distractors can consume you, waste time, and lower your productivity. They can diminish your ability to immerse yourself in a subject or live in the present moment.
However, you can also choose what you want to focus on and direct your attention intentionally.
You also have part of your mind that can override impulses, allow you to pause before you act, and is in control of how you perceive events.
Goldman calls this your "Top-Down" mind. Goldman says your Top-Down mind is in charge of planning, reflection, and learning new skills. It's slower and requires voluntary attention and self-control.
This part of your brain allows you to choose what to focus on. He believes that voluntary attention works like a muscle; if you don't use it, it atrophies, but it can grow and develop if you work it out. Goldman says that choosing to pay attention to one thing rather than another involves a push-pull process between bottom-up and top-down minds.
Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Siegel says you can focus energy and information flow through your brain and that your attention can be consciously directed and focused on different things.
He calls this "Focal Awareness," which is the deliberate, conscious registering of your surroundings. Your mind can intentionally bring different parts of the world into focus and blur others.
Goldman says if you can develop your ability to ignore distractions and focus well, you can help to increase your performance and enable you to have more profound reflections and deeper insights.
Having the ability to focus your attention is an advantage, both in life and work. It enables you to perform better and achieve a higher level of well-being.
Here are some examples.
Research shows that focusing your attention more deliberately on a goal can improve your chances of achieving it. For example, in a study to examine the effects of focused attention on performance, two different groups with ankle weights had to run to a finish line.
One group was told to focus on a specific point, and the other wasn't instructed to concentrate on anything. The group that was told to focus on a specific point achieved the goal with 17% less measured effort and 23% faster.
Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says that focus changes your nervous system to engage in action. When your vision focuses on a common point, you increase alertness, and your eyes recruit internal mechanisms that put you in the mode for action.
Conversely, when your vision drifts, your body won't gear up for action as much, and you will have a reduction in goal-directed behavior. The greater the number of options, the more difficult it is to focus your attention.
The more precise you can get about your goals, the more likely you will align yourself biologically and psychologically with pursuing and achieving your desired results.
Graham Wallas was a social psychologist and co-founder of the London School of Economics. One of his areas of study was the process of creativity. In 1926 he published The Art of Thought, which would outline the four stages of the creative process based on his observations and the accounts of famous and accomplished creative individuals.
The first stage is preparation, in which the person focuses intensely on a problem. He believed it's only after this focus stage that your brain can make connections later on. Creative work and problem-solving take focus and deliberate attention. But we can never make creative connections if we don't spend time thinking deeply about a subject.
Anders Ericsson, a performance expert and psychologist thought that a lack of deliberate focus leads us to stop learning and improving. He thought people would generally reach a satisfactory level after learning a new skill and automate their performance without improvement, even after years of "practice."
For example, there are studies where doctors who have been in practice for twenty or thirty years do worse on objective performance measures than those just two or three years out of medical school.
Repetitions alone don't lead to improvement. Ericsson says that every practice session requires a person's full attention and conscious actions to improve. You need to bring immense awareness to what you want to change.
However, both in wrestling with creative solutions or practicing for improvement, our minds tend to wander and be distracted when being forced to focus that intensely. This means that you may miss an opportunity to achieve your best work - which requires attention, focus, and mental discipline.
In 1972 a famous study was published by Stanford professor Walter Mischel. He conducted a series of studies to understand the importance of delayed gratification better. During his study, Mischel tested hundreds of children between 4 and 5. They placed each child into a private room and put a marshmallow in front of them.
They then were offered a deal...
The researcher would come back into the room after 15 minutes, and if the child didn't eat the marshmallow by the time they came back, they would be awarded another marshmallow. But if they gave in to their temptation early, they wouldn't get a second marshmallow.
Some of the children gave up right away, others after a few minutes, and finally, some made it through the whole 15 minutes. However, this was only part of the experiment. The research followed the children for more than 40 years to track their progress in several areas.
They found that the children who were able to wait patiently and delay their gratification had higher SAT scores, lower substance abuse levels, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills, and overall better scores in other life measures.
Science writer Winifred Gallagher has also studied how attention shapes our quality of life. She describes attention as “mental money.” It’s a finite resource in which how we manage that resource is more important to leading a good life than even our circumstances.
She discovered the power of attention to improve well being and help her get through a scary cancer diagnosis. She decided that after she found good doctors and had a treatment plan, she would stop worrying about what she couldn't control and focus on other areas of her life. This mindset helped her continue to find success and well-being in her life and allowed her doctors to focus on healing her cancer, which they did.
Attention helps you turn our chaotic world into smaller and more manageable pieces. We spotlight what we are focused on and suppress everything else. However, those smaller pieces are subjective and fragmented.
And as you already know, we evolved to pay attention to what our minds perceive as pain or danger. Without practice, your mind will tend to focus on negative aspects and suppress other parts, which Gallagher says is especially bad when those aspects are things we can’t control.
However, you can create an experience according to what you pay attention to. Where you focus and how you approach experiences to shape your emotions and results. Paying attention to what you can control and the positive aspects of your reality trains your brain to keep from reacting as strongly in response to negative triggers.
From achieving goals, and doing great work, to overall well-being, the ability to control your attention can help you in many areas of your life. But what are some ways you can improve this skill set?
How to Improve Your Ability to Control Attention
End of Day Shutdown
One way to avoid being distracted by your unfinished tasks is to write them down. That gets them off your mind and on paper (or whatever digital version you use).
An end-of-day shutdown includes writing down unfinished tasks and the steps needed to complete them. This will remove distractions that come in the form of thinking about things you have to get done.
In 1918 Bethlehem Steel Corporation was looking for ways to increase the efficiency of its team. They ended up hiring a productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. Lee offered to teach them a technique for free, and if it worked, the company could send him a check for whatever they felt it was worth.
After using it for a few months, Bethlehem Steel Corporation paid Lee $25,000, or over $400,000 in today’s money.
Here is the technique:
- Write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow at the end of each workday.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Then, work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. Move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
Having an end-of-day shutdown allows you to get tasks out of your head, create a plan to complete, and focus on the most important tasks.
Schedule Distraction-Free Time
Neil Gaiman, a prolific writer and author of short stories, novels, comics, and screenplays, says that he uses boredom to help him be so productive.
When he sits down to write, he has a rule. He can either write or do absolutely nothing during his scheduled writing sessions. If he doesn't have something to write, he doesn't have to, but until his time is up, he isn’t allowed to read something else, check his phone, or watch tv. He can only sit there and write or sit there and do absolutely nothing.
While finishing her final Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling locked herself in a hotel room to escape her day-to-day environment. Scheduling times to purposely eliminate distractions can help focus your mind on what you need to pay attention to.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, advocates scheduling time and eliminating distractions. He says to start with an hour and eventually work toward increasing the time you can spend just focusing on what you are working on.
During this time, disconnect from the internet or turn your phone off. The goal is to not allow your brain to “context shift,” which is when your brain changes attention toward something else. He recommends turning this into a routine at a scheduled re-occurring time.
When concentrating on something intensely, your mind will crave something to break the monotony. But if you stop fighting boredom, you can make focused concentration a habit.
There is evidence that people who regularly meditate have increased activity in parts of the brain that help control attention. Meditation helps with being aware of what your mind is doing and practicing bringing it back to whatever you were focusing on before your mind started to wander.
During meditation, you can focus on your breath. When thoughts enter your mind and your attention wanders, which it inevitably will, you intentionally bring it back to concentrate on your breath. The actual act of being aware that your mind has started wandering is part of mindfulness.
You can also practice mindfulness by staying focused on being present in the moment and being completely aware of your surrounding environment. The goal is to achieve a relaxed state of awareness without judging your thoughts or environment. This type of meditation has been used to improve the performance of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers dynasty teams.
Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes mindfulness mediations as;
Mindfulness meditation isn’t directed to creating and holding some special state; it’s learning to steady our attention on the present moment, finding a wise and compassionate relationship to this organic change of body and heart and mind that we are. We can then embody this loving awareness in every season.
For the mind to become steady, settled in the present moment in the midst of so much change, it is helpful to develop a degree of stability; that is called concentration. Concentration is the art of calming and steadying our attention, like a candle flame in a windless place. One way we can practice this is with attention to our breath, or with a body scan. As we gently train ourselves to become mindful of breath and body, we can see more clearly, and become more balanced and more deeply present. We experience a unity of our body, spirit, and mind. To live this way is wonderful.
To steady and calm the mind takes kindness and patience. Training the mind in meditation is like training a puppy. We put the puppy down and say, “Sit. Stay.” What does it do? It gets up and runs around. “Stay.” It runs around again. Twenty times, “Stay.” After a while, slowly, the puppy settles down. Through practice, gently and gradually we can direct and steady our attention and learn how to be more fully where we are. But remember, this steadying of the heart and mind builds slowly. At first we may be discouraged. After trying for some days maybe we are mindful only 10 percent of the time and 90 percent lost in thought. We might easily judge ourselves as a failure. Yet if we look, we will realize that when we began to meditate, we were here only 2 percent of the time, and now we are here five times as much! Fives times more present to touch the earth, to feel the breeze, to see the eyes of the others around us, to be awake to our senses. This is no small improvement.
Distractors act upon you. Whether urgent or not, they command attention and priority in your mind over other important matters. Distractors can engulf you and diminish your ability to immerse yourself in areas of your life that have value.
The key is to learn how to manage those distractors and improve your ability to focus on what matters. Although we are wired for distraction and live in a very distracting world, you also can control where your attention goes, and there are ways to improve your ability to focus.
Using techniques to limit distractions, schedule focused work, and improve cognitive control to improve your ability to concentrate on matters have a massive impact on your life, both in overall performance and well-being.
- The Ivy Lee Productivity Method
- The Marshmallow Experiment
- Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
- Core Idea: Deep Work - YouTube Video
- Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment
- Steady the Mind - Jack Kornfield
- Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence by Dan Siegel
- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson